Most Abundant Butterflies: Bear Creek Canyon

Here are graphs showing the 18 most abundant species of butterflies in each summer month or half-month. These are based on 23 years of observations of tens of thousands of butterflies. The y-axis shows the numbers of butterflies noted per hour of observation time. This is a historic record, and I understand that many readers will not know the scientific names of these butterflies, but I am illustrating the three most common above each graph. Nymphalis antiopa, the mourning cloak, hibernates as an adult and flies on the warmest days in February. Celastrina lucia is the tiny spring blue that sometimes congregates at mud spots. Its taxonomy is still uncertain. It is the most common butterfly in the canyon from April through early June. In July, its numbers fall off and it is replaced by a series of brush-footed butterflies that are of medium size and generally orange and black in color. Limenitis weidemeyeri is a large black butterfly with bold white bands across the wings. In July, the silver spots (Speyeria) and a couple of skippers (Poanes and Euphyes) become common.Screen Shot 2017-05-23 at 10.51.50 PM


This amounts to about 26 butterflies per hour.

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Early May

This amounts to about 43 butterflies per hour.

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Late May

This amounts to about 60 butterflies per hour, but over half of them are the little Spring Azure Blue.

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Early June

This amounts to about 58 butterflies per hour.

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Late June.png

Now we’re at about 72 butterflies per hour. Quite a jump from June.

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Early July.png

And all the way up to 76 per hour…

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Late July

Then, rather suddenly, back to about 44 butterflies per hour. Clearly, July is butterfly month in the Colorado foothills.

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Or about 55 butterflies per hour.

By September, numbers drop to about 20 butterflies per hour in random habitats. But from late September through October and into November, butterflies can be found in large numbers on rabbitbush, Chrysothamnus nauseosus. On these bushes, I have found 145 butterflies and over 200 day-flying moths in less than a half hour. That’s an average of about 290 butterflies per hour!

More early emergence records

This spring continues to be the warmest I’ve seen, with new early emergence records rolling in each week. Today in Bear Creek I found Erynnis telemachus, the Rocky Mountain duskywing, usually not seen until the second week of April, and Celastrina lucia, the spring azure blue, which usually starts flight around April 5th. Pussy willows in full bloom draw in large numbers of butterflies if you stop and look closely. All of the following are early records in 2017.

Erynnis telemachus, a surprise, especially because another species, E. brizo, usually flies first, and it hasn’t been seen yet.


Celastrina lucia, the spring azure blue.DSC02487

Pieris rapae, the European cabbage butterfly, an import– in some parts of North America, the most abundant butterfly.DSC02468

Nymphalis milberti, Milbert’s tortoise shellDSC02475

Archiearis infans, the Infant moth, photographed in the net and released.DSC02472


Early and Late Records for El Paso County Butterflies

Here is a list of my personal records for the early and late observations of about 170 butterfly species in El Paso County. I hope that other naturalists will make notes and contact me with new records. Collected specimens are the best way to verify sightings, but photographs usually work.


Butterfly abundance indices, Bear Creek Canyon, El Paso Co., Colorado

Amblyscirtes eos

Introduction and site description:     Butterfly surveys have been used around the world for several decades to determine the ecological health of habitats and to document or measure changes over time. In El Paso County, since F. Martin Brown began his first forays into the hills to document butterfly ranges in the 1930’s, the human population has grown from about 33,000 to over 587,000. In the same time interval, the land area of Colorado Springs proper has increased from about 12 square miles to nearly 300 square miles, and the current human population density of Colorado Springs is about 2027/square mile, and that of El Paso County about 276/sq. mi. ( County-CO.html; U. S. Census Bureau 2000 Report). Although the habitat loss concomitant with development caused many local population extinctions, especially as wetlands were disturbed, the city of Colorado Springs today is bordered by abundant preserved public lands, and it is probable that most butterfly populations in the areas around the city are little changed in the wake of this extensive development. Strongly restricted species, however, may now have fewer refugia and may occur in depressed populations. Regional extinctions may have gone undetected. Continue reading “Butterfly abundance indices, Bear Creek Canyon, El Paso Co., Colorado”

Earliest Spring Butterflies

Obviously, it’s not spring yet, but with the last few warm days, the butterfly species that hibernate as adults (most butterflies hibernate as pupae, larvae or even eggs) are feeling springtime in the air. Today in Bear Creek I found two species, the earliest date ever for the anglewing, and the second earliest date for the mourning cloak (Eric Eaton saw a mourning cloak in town on the 6th!). These species emerge from the pupa in August, September, October or even November, and then find safe refuge in deep grass clumps or under bark until spring. But 75°F feels a lot like spring to us, and to butterflies as well. the top is the mourning cloak (Nymphalis antiopa) and the bottom the zephyr anglewing (Polygonia zephyrus).


Forest thinning

My goodness, I’ve been going back through my old data sets from the 2006 and 2007 season when we studied the effects of forest thinning on many aspects of the ecology, including the invertebrates, which, to me, suggests moths. Look at these graphs, for example. Each of them considers a single group, or genus, of moths as they respond to thinning across the years. The leftmost points are from the control stand–never thinned. The next point, moving right, is a collection made from a stand thinned the previous year. The highest points are collections made four years after the thinning. And the last point, way off to the right, is a collection made sixteen years after thinning. Look at the pattern.screen-shot-2017-01-09-at-8-16-10-pm




Can you see the trend in all of these groups? The upshot is that they all show reduced numbers after one year of thinning, then they all show increasing numbers after four years. Then, by sixteen years after thinning, the numbers fall to near the original set. The bottom graph shows the overall biodiversity of ALL moths in this study. But the wonder of wonders is that, while the biodiversity is about the same after sixteen years, the community has greatly changed. That is, many of the original species are gone, but have been replaced by a new set. So biodiversity is not affected, but the community structure is very, very different. All this to be published in the next year. One of my 2017 goals. Questions? Ask.

Butterfly and Moth Biodiversity

Do you have any idea how many moth species live in the Pikes Peak Region? Take a guess. A hundred? A thousand? Ten thousand? Well, it turns out, if you have data like I have, a reasonable estimate can be made. I used the Clench equation, taken from Harry K. Clench’s paper* on estimating butterfly biodiversity on reserves. It is useful after a few years (or hours) of data points are available. If you want the answer, you can skip the math and go to the case study, below. But in case you’re interested…

The equation shows that the eventual number of species (Se) in a locality can be estimated as a function of a constant, K, and the number of hours spent in the field (N).


As K approaches zero, N + K approaches N, and Se = S. In this equation, S represents the number of species taken at any given time and N represents the number of years (or hours) afield. Simplified, the equation looks like this:


Data that show a positive curve will not apply, of course. This can result if the first expedition is poor but the second is extraordinary. But as more data accumulate, a negative curve is generated, and any two points roughly on the curve can be used to estimate the asymptote, which is equivalent to Se.

Let us assume that after two years, 62 species have been cataloged (2, 62), and that after an additional 2 years, a total of 81 have been recorded (4, 81). Using these to create a system of equations allows us to calculate K, and then Se, as follows.

2Se = (2)(62) + 62K

4Se = (4)(81) + 81K

multiplying the first equation by –2 yields this pair:

– 4Se = –248 – 124K

4Se =   324 + 81K

eliminating the Se term,

0 = 76 – 43K

– 76 = –43K

K = 1.77

Substituting into the original equation yields an estimate of

Se = 124 + 110 = 234 species


screen-shot-2017-01-14-at-1-20-43-pm*Clench, H. K. 1979 How to make regional lists of butterflies: some thoughts. Journ. Lepid Soc 33(4) 216-231